Physical divide between rural an urban areas leading to more political divisions

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In her remarks at last week’s inaugural meeting of Woolwich council, Mayor Sandy Shantz touched on the rural/urban divide that exists in Waterloo Region – the four township mayors bring their perspectives to a regional council dominated by representatives from the three cities.

Regional priorities aren’t always seen in the same light in Kitchener and, say, Maryhill.

In that regard, Woolwich, too, has both an urban and rural component. Much of the municipal business focuses on Elmira, with activity in Breslau, scene of much development, and St. Jacobs. You don’t have to look too hard to find township council issues that have residents in the smaller settlements making comparisons to the offerings in Elmira.

In Wellesley, smaller and with less of an industrial/commercial tax base, the rural component is an even bigger issue, both at the regional level and when it comes to the likes of provincial and federal financial support, a longstanding grievance for all municipalities.

We see the rural/urban split in Ontario politics, with the larger centres typically opting for Liberal or NDP candidates, while the Tories do better in the outlying areas – the last election saw a surge for the NDP in ridings that wanted to rid themselves of the Liberals, but couldn’t vote for the Conservatives, while Doug Ford drew enough voters fed up with Kathleen Wynne but unwilling to trust the New Democrats.

The local situation and even the Queen’s Park results are a microcosm of a split that is becoming a larger political concern on the international stage. The red state/blue state divide in the U.S. is a very obvious case in point in the age of Trump, but it’s also at play in the Brexit debate in the UK and the “yellow vest” protests in France, for instance.

Canada is not immune, of course, as we can clearly see in the debate over carbon taxes, pipelines and gun controls, which pit the concerns of the Prairie provinces against the diktats from Ottawa. And the situation here is unlikely to improve as the country becomes more urban.

Already,more than 80 per cent of us live in urban areas. Some 35.5 per cent of all Canadians live in just three cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – up from 29.9 per cent three decades earlier, according to information from the 2016 census. That trend continues. And it could lead to the kind of issues we see in other countries – think of the London vs. the countryside split in the Brexit vote, for example.

Researchers Sean Speer and Jamil Jivani took note of the potential impacts in a sesquicentennial piece in Policy Options that looked at Canada’s next 100 years.

 “The urban/rural divide in general and the growing population concentration in a small number of major urban centres is one potential seismic fault line that requires greater thought and care on the part of Canadian politicians and policy-makers,” they wrote. “Increasingly our economic, political and social dividing lines may be found between Toronto,Montreal and Vancouver, and everywhere else. A failure to reconcile the different concerns, interests and aspirations of urban and rural Canadians could reproduce the disconnect shaping present-day American politics.”

The U.S. example isn’t one we want to follow, of course.

“The growing urban/rural divide in Canada could lead to similar, equally divisive realignments in our politics, too. The oversized cultural and media influence of our major cities undoubtedly exacerbates this possibility.”

The American dilemma has been widely discussed since Trump’s unlikely rise to the presidency, which caught many pundits off guard simply because those in the urban areas were unaware and/or dismissive of the concerns and problems found in the rural and even suburban areas of the country.

The anger that arose in the so-called flyover parts of the country, particularly in the rust belt states, had much to do with poorer economic prospects and feelings of neglect. As the urban areas grow and the economic shifts – many of them the result of poor and corrupt polices – continue to alter the landscape, bridging the gap appears ever-more difficult.

Using the recent hysteria over a new Amazon headquarters as an example, economist Paul Krugman noted the company’s options were restricted to large metropolitan areas, which offer both talented employees and serve as a locale to attract people and investment. 

“Over the past generation, America’s regions have experienced a profound economic divergence. Rich metropolitan areas have gotten even richer, attracting evermore of the nation’s fastest growing industries. Meanwhile, small towns and rural areas have been bypassed, forming a sort of economic rump left behind by the knowledge economy,” he writes in a recent column.

“Amazon’s headquarters criteria perfectly illustrate the forces behind that divergence.Businesses in the new economy want access to large pools of highly educated workers, which can be found only in big, rich metropolitan areas. And the location decisions of companies like Amazon draw even more high-skill workers to those areas.

In other words, there’s a cumulative, self-reinforcing process at work that is, in effect, dividing America into two economies. And this economic division is reflected in political division.”

Such situations can make people feel left behind and, in turn, foment anger. When change happens too quickly, there can be a backlash. That’s what’s happening in the States, but also in the shifts to right we’re seeing in the typically more progressive nations of Western Europe. It’s also in evidence in Eastern Europe,where there’s long been a feeling of second-class status, and where the more homogenous societies are reacting poorly to migration crises that have come along with stagnant economies.

We’re just starting to see some of that anger and resultant backlash in Canada. Inter provincial tensions over oil and carbon taxes, concerns about illegal border crossings and runaway housing prices, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, have rural-urban implications, and put the country on a path that we can see others now following on other parts of the globe.

Things are unlikely to get that kind of ugly here in the region, but the divide exists nonetheless.